Research shows that upgrading footpaths to tracks can benefit rural and marginalised communities in Liberia, by opening the areas to motorcycle taxi services – drastically reducing transport times and boosting trade.

Cities and important economic hubs in sub-Saharan Africa are connected by highways, while smaller towns are connected to the main hubs by feeder roads – usable for cars, buses and trucks, but still costly to build and maintain. Depending on terrain and construction standards the cost to build or improve 1km of a standard road can vary greatly, ranging from £40,000 to £160,000. The sheer cost means that roads are unlikely to be built into more remote areas.

In these rural regions motorcycle taxis have become a thriving business, navigating unrehabilitated feeder roads and even footpaths wherever possible. They have radically cut transport time, opening up access to healthcare, schools and markets. An estimated 65–95% of passenger and freight transport in Sierra Leone are carried out by motorcycle taxis, with similar percentages in neighbouring Liberia.

A research team led by Dr Krijn Peters of Swansea University, together with a Liberian and Sierra Leone NGO, has been investigating how upgrading footpaths to motorcycle taxi-accessible tracks have affected people’s livelihoods and wellbeing in Liberia, and whether upgraded tracks can complement conventional road construction or be a cheaper and more cost-effective alternative in deep rural settings.

The research, funded by the ESRC-DFID Joint Fund for Poverty Elimination Research, focused on the experiences of a number of villages along three upgraded tracks, and compared these with several control villages which remained disconnected to the main road network for motorised transport.

The researchers revealed several major impacts from the improved transport link:

  • Construction and maintenance of tracks were between 10 and 20 times cheaper than conventional feeder road building
  • Starting up from zero journeys, a total of 9,500 motorbike taxi journeys a year were recorded along one track, and 5,300 along another.
  • For the villages along one of the tracks, previously there were only 8% of journeys that were quick and took within an hour, but that changed to 69% of journeys after the track upgrade.
  • The improved transport link also supported the change from subsistence farming to small-scale cash-crop production. Travel times to markets are reduced by up to 50%, and load capacity is increased – for instance, people can carry 2-3 plantain bunches when walking, but up to 25 plantain bunches on a motorcycle.
  • With about 25 km of upgraded tracks between communities and access to motorcycle taxis, health workers were able to reach rural communities easily at times of medical emergency, such as the Ebola crisis.

The researchers also looked at how such initiatives could be supported for a wider roll-out of upgraded tracks. Across sub-Saharan Africa, upgrading footpaths has the potential to improve lives for hundreds of millions of people.

"Upgrading tracks for use by motorcycles is extremely cheap compared to conventional rural road construction. Also, it can largely be carried out by people in the community – providing work in rural areas," says Dr Peters. "But without hard data on impact, relevant state actors and international donors remain reluctant to allocate funds to rural track-building and upgrading. Our research provides data to support an addition or alternative to conventional roads."